[Review] Elton John: The Thom Bell Sessions (1979)

These songs were salvaged from 1977 Philly Soul session produced by Thom Bell and featuring material written by Bell & James.

Kronomyth 16.5: Elton John, I’m only dancing.

The second half of the Seventies saw Elton wiltin’. Here And There was nowhere, Blue Moves was a double-album downer and, by 1979, Elton seemed a washed-up disco diva. These were lost years, complete with their own lost sessions.

In 1977, Elton went into a studio with Philly soul producer Thom Bell to make a disco album. The material was written mostly by Bell’s son LeRoy and Casey James (of Bell & James fame) and featured that pair plus members of MFSB on instruments. The Philly disco detour wasn’t entirely unexpected (“Philadelphia Freedom” ring a bell?), but for some reason the sessions fizzled out after a half-dozen tracks. It wasn’t until after A Single Man that Elton remixed a handful of them, scoring a surprise hit with “Mama Can’t Buy You Love.”

I’m not the biggest disco fan in the world (pshaw, you say), but I thought “Part-Time Love” was pretty good, and these songs are much better than that. The opening strings and horns on “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” are vintage magic; much better than an nth pale retelling of “I Want You Back.” And the harmonies on “Three Way Love Affair” are as rich as anything on David Bowie’s Young Americans. Victim of Love is a mugging, but these lost sessions are a find in the flatlands between Rock of the Westies and 21 at 33. A decade later, the “complete” sessions were released as a six-track EP.

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Original 12-inch EP version*

A1. Mama Can’t Buy You Love (LeRoy Bell/Casey James) (4:03)
A2. Three Way Love Affair (LeRoy Bell/Casey James) (5:31)
B1. Are You Ready For Love (LeRoy Bell/Casey James) (8:31)

* UK version features different track order.

The Players

Elton John (vocals), Bob Babbit (bass), LeRoy Bell (guitar overdubs, background vocals), Thom Bell (keyboards, arranger, conductor), Tony Bell (guitar, background vocals), Charles Collins (drums), Bobby Eli (guitar), Casey James (guitar overdubs, synthesizer overdubs, background vocals), M.F.S.B. (strings and horns), Larry Washington (percussion) with Carla Benson (background vocals), Evette Benton (background vocals), Barbara Ingram (background vocals), Bill Lamb (background vocals), The Spinners (background vocals). Produced by Thom Bell; engineered by Don Murray; mixed by Clive Franks and Elton John.

The Pictures

Photography by A3. Design by Jubilee.

The Plastic

Released in June 1979 in the UK (Rocket, XPRES 1312), the US (MCA, MCA-13921) and Australia (Rocket, 9198 229); reached #51 on the US charts.

  1. Re-issued on EP in 2016 in Europe (Rocket, 00602547614513) to commemorate Record Store Day.

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